So… what are we doing here?
For the third time in the last 18 years, not a single National Hockey League has been played at the Christmas break. If Gary Bettman keeps signing collective bargaining agreements that aren’t sustainable to the future health of the league, I hope the next guy is a little more forward thinking…
Anyway, there’s been enough wrapping our hands around Bettman’s non-existent neck. He’s been great for the corporate side of hockey, the business owners and the season seat holders, none of which are going to up and leave the NHL as long as it’s a trendy way to entertain clients. Nobody’s given up on tickets, even though it’s just as embarrassing to be a fan of hockey these days as it is for Shane Doan to be a player. I’d include writers in there, somewhere, but we don’t matter as much as players and fans in the way the game is played or presented.
It’s December 24th and there’s no labour agreement. I think a number of outside observers believed that the National Hockey League could not be so stupid to withhold a few million dollars to guarantee the league would not play the Winter Classic, or at least the first week of January, but that was months ago we made that projection, and we’re talking about business owners who decided to put teams in Glendale, Sunrise and Atlanta.
One thing I’ve noticed watching other sports this season, particularly football, is the division of labour. Some teams are exceptional at things like the pass rush, some are exceptional at running the ball, but every strength creates a weakness for another team to exploit. You watch a football team, and they’re so much more developed than a hockey team. There’s more money, more personnel, more strategy, I think generally more thinking involved. I’ve seen trends in offensive attacks change twice since 2003, the year I really started following the game.
By comparison, hockey lags. The shift from defence to offence was aided by rule changes unprecedented in any other sport in the modern era. I really have no sympathy for the people who own hockey teams, because the people they have hired to implement and run their systems lack creativity. Why not also believe, while the coaching staffs struggle to catch up to modern thinking and strategies, that these owners are also poor at adding to their hockey operations staff?
Every strength creates a weakness. I’ve seen this shift from pocket passers at the early part of the decade, to some teams try to run a West Coast-style offence with running quarterbacks like Michael Vick. The reason why Vick never caught on as a real star in the NFL (minus the arrests) is that his strength was easy to cover once defences learned to adjust to his strengths. He didn’t have an additional strength to supersede the adjustment. By comparison, about six years later, you have quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson, from my Seattle Seahawks, as players who can both move around as well as throw effectively.
But they create an entirely new weakness, one that has yet to be covered by a modern defence. I watched Seattle play San Francisco last night, and liked the way the 49ers closed in on Wilson and took away his ability to roll out to the outside. Sure, the Seahawks crushed them, but they forced Wilson to adjust, taking his ability to set up throwing a deep ball over the middle and instead using less dangerous receivers to the outside or in the flats.
I realize that this has sort of morphed into a football post, but if there’s one guarantee, even if there was hockey to be played this season, no coaches would be looking at how to systematically shut down a star rookie, nor would a more modern style of hockey player be driving coaches crazy. About the only innovations since the neutral zone trap to occur in the game of hockey involve a few teams starting their most offensive players at the offensive side of the ice, and a few coaches have stopped playing pugilists in penalty killing and defensive situations.
Either one of those doesn’t require a whole lot of logic to dream up. I think I’d be organizing zone starts for my EA Sports teams, as well as getting fourth liners that could skate, back during NHL 2004. I’d hate to say that hockey is made up of individuals from an old boys club that want to restrict original thought in the NHL, but it’s a fact that when a team like Chicago or Vancouver or San Jose come along that utilize their available players differently, or do something as simple as assuring every player in the lineup will play more than eight minutes, they’re considered the innovators, when really all they’re doing is not being dumb.
This is why I have trouble having too much sympathy for owners in dire financial straights, as I’ve been led to believe by Mr. Bettman, they are. Any team could approach hockey problems creatively and solve them with a different approach. For anybody who believes that competitive balance is still a driving force behind the lockout, answer this: which teams over the last seven years have been in such a poor financial condition that it’s affected their record?
Not Phoenix, not the team that went five games with Los Angeles in the conference final last season, and has made the playoffs three straight seasons on a shoestring budget, in years Bettman has assured us smaller franchises have had a hard time competing. Not Dallas, who had a very good offseason that included signing veterans Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr. I’m quite upset that we won’t be able to see how that experiment turned out. Not Florida, who opened the chequebook last summer to acquire an egregious contract in Brian Campbell, an excellent defenceman, and sign several free agents that helped them make the playoffs for the first time since Tyler Seguin was toilet-trained.
I’d say maybe the New York Islanders. Most cap floor teams have competed on the ice, even if they haven’t been turning profits. Bettman is using the illusion of “competitive balance” to sell fans on a third lockout, which seems to be avoiding the fact that it’s taken him several tries to land a financial system that works for the league ten years in the future. Either he’s hung up on single issues such as arbitration or salary caps that he fails to look ahead, or he’s not that smart. As much as he can entertain corporate clients and guarantee there will be a guy in a suit at every Toronto Maple Leafs home game, Bettman is fairly bad an anticipating changes to the marketplace. Every strength leads to a weakness, and he’s been losing a rock-paper-scissors game for years, buying in with taxpayer money from residents in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, and several other states who have municipalities throwing public funds at pro sports teams to not play hockey games.
For some reason, hockey lags behind. There hasn’t been the obvious, visual shift in the style of game like there has been in football in recent years to a game that incorporates more offensive elements. If not for rule changes in 2005, we’d be watching the same game as we were in 2004. The failing of the NHL from a consumer perspective is that it hasn’t made the system adjustments to account for the influx of young star players in the league. From a business perspective, they’re behind in anticipating realities like the increase in value of the Canadian dollar, or the vast popularity of the game in the Northeastern United States in the last seven years. Remember, the Coyotes and the Stars play on the same field as the Leafs and Bruins and Blackhawks, and when the latter teams make more money, it ensures that poorer teams have to pay players more.
Nothing on the table presented from either the players or owners guarantees that an increases in player costs can protect weaker teams from succeeding. There’s no luxury tax on the table, limited revenue sharing, no major U.S. TV deal to negotiate, no talk of contraction or re-location from crummy markets that inhibit progress and entertainment. The league is too large and too corporate for the top professional tier of a sport that’s still a niche game.
And while the business portion of the game fails to connect with new realities, so does the on-ice product. Visible strategic trend shifts are non-existent but on a few of the top teams in the league.
Meanwhile, on Boxing Day, Canadian coach Steve Spott will have a team far more skilled that any other in the tournament play a physical style on the big ice. Hockey people are hockey people, and there’s no changing them, and it sucks, and it makes the game worse, and it guarantees that we will never, ever have labour peace, at least in the current system with the current leadership.